Why the radio?
Words: Binwe Adebayo
In Africa, the radio is an entertainer and educator, an old and familiar friend who stays constant, even as life on the continent continues to change at a dizzying speed. By giving us access to real and imaginary worlds, it expands our horizons.
Whether it’s gathering to discover the fate of the local football team, indulging in the latest celebrity gossip, or mapping the politics of the day, the radio has and continues to be central to the way Africans connect. Despite the move in certain markets to podcasts, streaming audio shows, and internet-linked technologies, the humble battery-powered radio remains king on our continent. Providing free, always-on access to the world, and acting as a symbol for our relationship to society (and each other), radio remains an important icon of 21st-century African life.
While mobile internet connection continues to gain ground in African countries, access is still limited and the quality of the internet (and price of data) may dissuade users from the latest Spotify podcast, or live audio show. But even in countries like South Africa, where 87%+ people have access to mobile internet, analogue radio still trumps new media. Zulu-language station Umhlobo Wenene, for example, boasts 7.5 million listeners, almost 10% of the country’s population. The station is famed for its impassioned sports commentators, authentic take on local news, and unbiased approach to politics.
And bias is an important factor. Despite massive progress in the freedom of journalists on the continent, free and uncensored information remains a challenge (according to the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index). But radio in Africa has always risen to the challenge. Private stations like Mali’s Radio Kledu provide a balance to state-sponsored information and gives voice to people who are otherwise removed from important national conversations, like social justice and workers' rights.
But of course, the relationship to the radio (and where it’s listened to) is changing. While traditional radio still anchors the listening practices; mobile, savvy Africans are also listening to radio stations via programmes offered on Facebook, and through their mobile phones while they’re on the move - it’s not all boomboxes and antennae anymore.
Radio offers the chance to expand horizons of expectation and provides a soundtrack for the worlds in which we live. It’s the sound behind a hot day of surfing on one of Ghana’s beaches, or the chatter in the background of a Sunday afternoon nyama choma in Kenya. As legendary broadcaster Peggy Noonan once said, “TV gives everyone an image, but radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains”.